Want to save the world and look fabulous doing it? Try on one of self-described 'luxury eco' designer Linda Loudermilk's latest fashions; they're sexy, sustainable, and flatteringly toxin-free. With prices ranging from $350 to $1,700 per garment, though, you may have to choose between making an entrance and making next month's mortgage payment.
Welcome to the glamorous world of ecofashion, where clothing makes a bold statement about your values and the size of your wallet. The concept of ecofriendly clothing isn't new, of course: Hemp wearers have been preaching it for decades. What's revolutionary is just how haute the new designs are.
Last season, upscale retailer Barneys New York co-sponsored FutureFashion, a runway show that focused on ecofriendly fabrics. The trendsetting store 'helped convince top designers to participate,' reports Joel Gershon in E Magazine (July/Aug. 2005), and it 'featured the eco-outfits in its windows for several weeks after the show.' Saks Fifth Avenue recently began carrying its first-ever ecofashion clothing line, Edun, created by Bono (yes, the rock star) with his wife, Ali Hewson, and designer Rogan Gregory. Edun was also recently showcased in Vogue, the fashion industry's bible.
While clothes that are both stylish and sustainable remain a luxury of the wealthy, no one denies that the ecofashion movement is on the right track. The fashion industry's current practices have left a very unstylish footprint on the earth.
Cotton, fashion's all-time favorite fabric, is a pesticide-intensive crop, accounting for 10 percent of the world's pesticide use. According to the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), it takes two-thirds of a pound of pesticides to make a pair of jeans. Wool, too, is highly toxic. 'Conventional wool comes from sheep that are plunged into a pool of pesticides,' writes Gershon. The pesticides used on the cotton crops and the sheep are some of the most hazardous available, and they pose extreme threats to fish, wildlife, and farmers' health -- not to mention the well-being of those who don the final product and risk absorbing the toxins through their skin. PANNA analyzed a 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study and found that 90 percent of people tested carried a mixture of pesticides -- which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological problems -- in their bodies.
The production of synthetic fabrics takes a similarly disturbing toll; converting petroleum into polyester, nylon, and acrylic pollutes the air with carbon dioxide and the other usual suspects. And that's just the ecological impact. There's also the fact that textile manufacturers often rely on cheap overseas labor, turning a blind eye to unsafe factory conditions, sub-par health care, and inadequate wages.
While a few pairs of pricey bamboo pants are hardly going to turn the toxic tide, ecofashion's appetite for organic cotton is already making a difference for farmers. According to Organic Exchange, a Berkeley, California-based resource center for ethical consumerism, demand for organic cotton has increased 300 percent in the past three years. Behemoth Nike pledged to use 5 percent organic cotton in all of its cotton apparel by 2010. If mainstream corporations continue to catch on, it will go a long way toward making organic cotton farming a viable enterprise.
The rise of conscious consumerism in the fashion world feels more than a little familiar. It wasn't long ago that organic food caused a similar stir and was dismissed with similar cries of elitism. It was too expensive, we claimed, and too nichey to appeal to the mainstream consumer. Yet sales of organic food have exceeded all predictions, forcing supermarkets to adopt 'natural food' aisles to hang on to those precious LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) consumers.
The consensus within the ecofashion community is that once high fashion fully embraces sustainability, it will trickle down to the average consumer, presumably at a lower price. Besides, says Sean Schmidt, founding editor of the online magazine SASS (Style and Sustainability Seasonal), ecofashion is only partly about making sustainability look good. The part about 'bringing sustainability to the style world,' he writes, 'is simply a must.'
Consumers could opt to drop out of the relentless cycle of retail consumption and resurface in the world of clothes swaps and buying secondhand. In the short term, though, the answer probably involves compromise: purchasing some new organic clothes and some used clothes, and supplementing with hand-me-downs from Mom's vintage wardrobe. And in the long run, sustainable fashion, like sustainable agriculture, will require going beyond pesticide-free and even fair trade to an entirely new way of thinking about our clothes, knowing where they really came from and caring where they end up.